I have heard so much praise for ’84 Charing Cross Road’ by Helene Hanff it’s a book that I have been meaning to read for ages. It is also one of those books where because I had heard so much praise for it I hadn’t picked it up because I was worried it wouldn’t have the effect on me that it did on everyone else. We all have books like that don’t we, it’s not just me? Anyway I was lucky enough to receive as a Christmas present from the lovely Paul Magrs who thought it would be a perfect read for me, and he was spot on.
’84 Charing Cross Road’ is a series of very real letters, for some reason until I actually had the book in my hand I thought that it was a work of fiction, between writer Helene Hanff and Frank Doel a bookseller of Messrs Marks & Co a second-hand book shop in the heart of London. What initially starts as very much a business correspondence, between the rather outspoken Hanff and the more reserved Doel, from October 1949 becomes a friendship through letters and a love of books that lasts over twenty years.
“I just happen to have a peculiar taste in books, thanks to a Cambridge professor named Quiller-Couch, known as Q whom I fell over in a library when I was 17. And I’m about as smart-looking as a Broadway pan-handler.”
If that hasn’t already had you running to a book shop to buy it, as it is a most perfect book about books and reading really, there is so much more. As Hanff and Doel’s friendship blossoms she starts to send packages of food to him and the other workers in the store during the war, getting friends to visit with nylons etc, thus she creates further friendships all by the power of the pen. Initially (and I wondered if Frank himself might have felt this) Hanff’s lust for life, over familiarity and demanding directness almost pushed me to annoyance until her humour and her passion for books becomes more and more apparent along with her thoughtfulness during the war years as mentioned. I was soon wishing I had become Hanff’s correspondent myself.
“You’ll be fascinated to learn (from me that hates novels) that I finally got round to Jane Austen and went out of my mind for Pride and Prejudice which I can’t bring myself to take back to the library till you find me a copy of my own.”
There is a bittersweet twist in the tale, and I don’t think it spoils anything to give this away but skip this paragraph if you don’t want any spoilers, is that sadly Frank died before Helene could ever go and finally visit the shop. There are several times that she endeavours to get herself to London but due to finances, teeth and other circumstances it never happens. That all changes after the publication of ’84 Charing Cross Road’ which being a huge success means she flies to London to visit the shop, some of the people and the city she has always dreamed of visiting. She keeps a diary during this trip which is now included in every edition of this novel/la named ‘The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street’ which makes for additional fascinating reading.
“I got out of bed, had hysterics, a martini and two cigarettes, got back into bed, and whiled away the rest of the night composing cables saying I wasn’t coming.”
It’s hard to say anything further about these two novels, or are they technically novellas, because they simply need to be read. I can’t say anything other than go out and get a copy if you haven’t already. It was certainly a book that was right up my street! 9.5/10
This book was bought for me for Christmas by a very kind friend.
Who else has had the pleasure of reading ’84 Charing Cross Road’? Has anyone seen the movie, and if so what did you make of it? Which books about books and book lovers should I look out for next? Has anyone read any of Hanff’s other novels? Which books have been sat on your TBR and have you been putting off as everyone else loved them so much you fear you might not?